Sunday, January 08, 2012

Against Optimism

Around Thanksgiving, I heard many people talking about how they were grateful to have a job, despite the fact that they would have to abandon family gatherings in order to work Black Friday. I found myself thinking that "gratitude" is a horribly misplaced emotion for such a situation.

Now, granted, it is better to have a source of income than not. But gratitude implies that one owes some sort of debt to another, and a company is owed no debt for exploiting workers. One can accept the fact that one must go in and earn some money, and that this is reality. But one should not approve of corporate bullies.

I hear from a lot of people that we should be grateful for what we have, because many people have it worse. And I am admittedly privileged beyond most. Life also sucks sometimes, and this is true completely independently of people are starving halfway across the world. (And to whom would I be grateful? If it is to a god, then this god is responsible for the miserable conditions the world over just as much for my good fortune. Gratitude is not appropriate in such a situation, but rather a trembling fear that I might someday be put on the cosmic asshole's shit list. A god that gets people into Wheaton but then starves entire nations is not worthy of worship, only terror.)

But at this point someone might say, "But it makes me feel better to have hope in something, so what is wrong with that?" Because an unfounded optimism, a fantastic belief that the world is good, is selfish. One has chosen to make placate oneself with an opiate creating false beliefs, which render one unable to respond accurately to real problems. How can one meet others in their need, when one chooses comfort over truth? How can one address problems when the problems are ultimately good?

And if individual optimism is reprehensible, what shall we say of communal optimism? Of views which justify faith, because it is the only way of finding meaning for human existence (ignoring for the moment the direct counter-examples of people who have no problem finding fulfillment in such an existence – such an appeal to faith is an acknowledgement of one's own lack of imagination and inflexibility, not of the human condition)? Of beliefs which encourage a leap beyond the evidence, which by its very nature also is a leap beyond critical examination and which places ones wish fulfillment outside the realms of analysis?

Now, one might think that I would advocate a pessimism, by contrast. But that would not follow. Pessimism is its own set of fantasies which obscure the world. However, pessimism might at least encourage one to go out and change the world when necessary, so I have less of a problem with it. An acceptance of the actualities of the world as it is makes the most sense. Whether one wants to keep the world in stasis or to start a revolution, one must start with where things are presently. If I work a job I hate, I should go in and do it as calmly as possible, then search for new jobs afterwards in like spirit. But let us drop any view that valorizes fantasies.


(Of course, some of this is overblown. But no one responds to carefully drafted and qualified posts, so let's see what this can incite.)


Dawn Xiana Moon said...
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Dawn said...

You may be conflating faith and an unhealthy sense of optimism.

M. Anderson said...

Hey Dawn,

Here's my issue with faith. Most arguments for belief (that I've heard) in the end rely on some sort of statement that we need to belief Christianity is true in order for human life to be meaningful, etc.

Some do this directly. Others are more circuitous: they start off as presenting rational evidence, but then make some sort of leap with the proclamation that if we were skeptics (as I would hold the data demands) we could never actually know whether this important truth were true. Still others don't admit to a leap in the rational evidence, but only for the commitment to the position required.

But they all have some element of optimistic faith, which seems to me to be straight up wish fulfillment. If it is not given by the evidence, with the degree of commitment and certainty demanded by the evidence, but rather is something we believe to be true because it lets us believe things that we want to be true, this is the very definition of wish fulfillment. (Which is not to say that science can't be approached in a similar fashion, but belief in evolution and belief in Christianity are orders of magnitude different.)

But it seems to be a poor way of navigating the world in every single area in life. Why should the heart suddenly be the route to truth here? It is like saying that a romance must work out, because one desires so much that it does. One can rationalize it as much as one wants, but at root, it is the emotion leading the way, oftentimes into disaster.